Jesus once told a parable about a rich man who produced a great abundance of crops. Not sure what to do, the man decided to tear down his barns and build larger barns that could store all of his wealth. But God says to him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
I thought about this parable when I heard someone untied a $40 million yacht owned by Betsy DeVos' family last month. It’s one of 10 vessels owned by her family. The untied yacht, originally docked in northern Ohio, happened to be flying a flag of the Cayman Islands because it’s registered there, presumambly in order to avoid taxes.
Meanwhile, as Secretary of Education, DeVos has been working to dismantle public education in favor of private school vouchers.
Can someone who owns 10 yachts enter the kingdom of God? I’m not sure. Only God can judge a soul. What I can say is that it’s unjust for billionaires—including the wealthiest Christians in human history—to amass obscene profits while gutting the public goods and social safety nets that help ordinary people. Capitalism is so deeply ingrained in our Christianity that it is the default. Yet, this arrangement is neither natural nor inevitable.
In One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America , historian Kevin Kruse highlights how business leaders partnered with Christian libertarians in the 1940s and 1950s to demonize the welfare state and elevate an unfettered market. They associated the New Deal with theft against business owners and with deification of the state. Under the banner of freedom, preachers such as Billy Graham and media moguls such as Cecile B. DeMille linked Christianity with free enterprise.
It may be hard to imagine but — in the generations just prior to this — the United States had been full of Christian socialists. Responding to the previous Gilded Age, many churches set aside Labor Sunday to elevate the concerns of workers. The Social Gospel movement connected faith with changing unjust social structures that created deplorable conditions for regular people. One of its most famous proponents, Walter Rauschenbusch, grew tired of preaching at funerals for children who died of preventable causes in the immigrant neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.
In the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about a revolution of values looking uneasily on glaring contrasts of wealth and poverty, he was drawing from this tradition. He was also drawing from an adjacent tradition that took racism seriously and included leaders like Benjamin Mays and Ida B. Wells. Yet, in the decades after King’s assassination, the country’s economic orthodoxy took an even sharper right-wing turn.
The rise of Ronald Reagan and the Religious Right was the culmination of a long project in which big business and libertarian Christians sought their version of freedom and virtue in an unfettered market. By the mid-1990s, the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton was also busy dismantling welfare and both parties were stressing free-market solutions. Christians of any political stripe now confronted political and economic experts who claimed that there was no alternative to neoliberalism. The way forward to prosperity and overall well-being would still consist of some marital arrangement between Christianity and capitalism.
But this consensus is unraveling. A new wave of economists such as Stephanie Kelton are now questioning whether fiscal responsibility can be divorced from moral considerations.
Although the economy has grown tremendously, real wages for most U.S. workers have not gone up in nearly 40 years. Factor in the increasing unaffordability of basic needs like housing and health care, and ballooning student debt, and it’s not hard to see why more and more Americans are struggling to get by. According to a study released this week, 47 percent of working Californians are now struggling with poverty.
In the midst of this, billionaires such as Jeff Bezos make more money in one minute than the average millennial makes in a year. No amount of philanthropy or charity can undo this injustice. That’s because companies like Amazon make a few rich precisely by making others poor —through paying starvation wages and offloading costs on tax-payers.
The classic Christian libertarian argument against the New Deal was that it deified the state and overestimated the positive role that government could play in people’s lives. Today, it seems we are reaping the costs of a pendulum that swung in the opposite direction. Christian capitalists have deified an unfettered market. The results have been increased human misery, monopolies running rampant, and an existential threat against the planet.
No government or state is perfect. But that is no reason to give unchecked power to wealthy corporations and individuals who prioritize profit and property over people. I believe Christians must re-discover the spirit of Jesus and move away from a Christianity that’s married to capitalism. This will include a re-commitment not only to the common good, but to public goods and a social safety net that truly provide better conditions for human freedom.
If Jesus were to visit our country on this Labor Day weekend, I think he might look — with horror — at the vast need that exists alongside obscene abundance. He might look at all of those hoarding this abundance, and ask: whose will it be?